Wrestling with the Word: “Traditional”

“School reform” in American history has a long tortuous history. Invariably, efforts to improve public schooling sprouted during widespread national reforms such as the Progressive movement in the early 20th century, the civil rights struggle in mid-20th century, and business-driven attempts to harness schooling to the economy in the closing decades of the same century.

Invariably, these reformers trotted out the word “traditional” for institutions and practices that had to change. For those familiar with Ngrams, note that the rise and fall of the phrase “traditional schools” track the above reform movements.

None of the language used and vigorous reform efforts to improve American schools surprise historians of education familiar with the century-and-a-half changes that have occurred in U.S. schools. Reformers have often touted innovations in education as ending “traditional” schooling or “traditional” teaching.

The word “traditional,” then, in a culture that prizes new ideas and gadgets, that richly rewards invention and praises bending well-established norms–often has a negative ring to it.

This issue of school reform ending “traditional” schooling reminded me of when I was teaching graduate school seminars to masters and doctoral students on school reform nearly a decade ago.

One class session, one of my students startled me as she was presenting her project report to our seminar. She said that I was teaching a “traditional” course in our seminar. Where did this come from?

The student’s project for my seminar was to do research on a “flipped” course that she was taking along with 40,000 other students in the world called a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Very popular in universities a decade ago, a “flipped” class meant that students on their own time see videos of professors lecturing rather than during the actual class meeting.

Then when the class would meet, the professor would have groups of students work together, report on their projects, and have informed discussions. Thus, a “flipped” class mixed online instruction for homework with a seminar where the professor and students explore concepts, raise questions, collaborate with one another, and practice analytic skills. That was the idea. How much it appeared in actual practice, no one knows.

But what surprised me was her comparison of that innovative course to the class I was teaching. She said my seminar was “traditional” as opposed to the “flipped” course she and the other students were taking. I did not sense criticism in the word and I felt none. She had compared the two courses and clearly my seminar was “traditional” compared to the “flipped one.”

To be quite honest, I had not thought that my seminar was “traditional.” I did not lecture for 30 or 40 minutes. While I did structure the class around central questions for the seminar to answer, I had small groups and pairs of students wrestle with data I presented to them or that appeared in the readings they had had for that day’s seminar. I would have groups report out their findings and discuss the results. Often I would ask open-ended questions and then have students make a forced choice on the options I presented them and followed up with questions that got at the reasons for their answers.

Yes, I did have a syllabus. Yes, students had readers and they were expected to have completed the selections prior to our twice weekly seminar. Yes, I planned the questions and activities for our sessions of an hour and 50 minutes each. Yes, I guided the discussion with the questions although on many occasions, student responses took the discussion in a direction I had not anticipated. And, yes, I made all of the decisions on which question I would pursue with the group, who to call upon, and when to segue to the next activity.

When you add up all of my “yesses,” the student’s description of the seminar as a “traditional” course was accurate insofar as compared to a “flipped” course.

So why was I startled by my seminar being characterized, innocently to be sure, as “traditional?” I suspect that it is the word itself that got to me. As a high school teacher for many years, as a professor for decades, and as a researcher who delved into the many reform efforts to alter how teachers have taught over the past century, the word “traditional” still had connotations that bothered me.

To me, traditional meant boring classes. Traditional meant that the teacher was the fount of all knowledge and authority. Traditional meant that students were passive listeners.

Yet as both a high school teacher and university researcher I had seen peers and other teachers masterfully teach “traditional” lessons where students were thoroughly engaged, rapt with attention, and deeply involved in the activities that the teacher had prepared.

What it came down to was that as a reform-minded teacher and administrator for decades in public schools I had styled myself as someone who was non-traditional in both the way I taught and the reforms I sought out in curriculum, instruction, school organization, and governance.

“Traditional” was a negatively-charged word. Among reform-minded policymakers, practitioners, and researchers, the word meant the hide-bound past, boring lessons, teacher-controlled classrooms, and little learning. It was the opposite of constructivist, progressive teachers and principals who sought student-centered learning.

With the current spread of online learning, blended schools, and “flipped” classes “traditional” has come again to mean everything thought to be ineffective and tiresome in teaching and learning.

I was surprised (but not disturbed) by my student’s comment because I, too, had become caught up in the reform rhetoric that dirtied the word “traditional.” Of course, that is foolish. When applied to teaching, “traditional” covers a wide range of lessons and classroom experiences that have diverse effects on both teachers and students–some thrive in such settings, some make-do, and others shrivel.

I surely knew that before my student labeled my seminar “traditional.” I just had to learn it again.



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4 responses to “Wrestling with the Word: “Traditional”

  1. Reblogged this on jeanhaverhill and commented:
    I remember at the kitchen table , 3 of us with graduate degrees, trying to figuare out what the homework assignment was intended to do for the 2nd grade grandchild. Once we answered, “what does the teacher want here, the “method” or the steps were followed. One time assisting a fifth grade student with math at the homeless shelter, she wisely said “you are doing I the traditional way{

  2. Joe Nathan

    Interesting column. We agree that, as you concluded, in the kind of learning setting you provided, “some thrive, some make do, and others shrivel.” This is a recognition that students learn differently.
    This is part of the educational rationale for school choice – some thrive for example in a Montessori or language immersion setting, some make do and others shrivel.” Many years ago Deborah Meier wrote about this in The Nation.
    It’s also been my experience that some educators much prefer in, and thrive, in a project based school, some, for example, in a Core Knowledge School, or a language immersion schoo, and some in a different kind of setting.
    Part of my work is to help families think about what is the best setting for their youngsters.

  3. Pingback: A Ler – O Meu Quintal

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